Yesterday, President Obama prepared to give a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, about homeownership and the state of the housing market. Meanwhile, NESRI friend and ally, Laura Gottesdiener, appeared on Democracy Now! to discuss the state of housing rights as experienced by communities in the United States struggling to protect and realize these rights. In response to a question from Amy Goodman about the day’s buzz-phrase – “housing recovery” – Laura said, “What we’re talking about when we talk about housing recovery is … the rising prices of houses. We’re not talking about a stabilization of the lives of families who have been evicted. We’re not talking about an end to foreclosures. Tens of thousands of foreclosures are still happening every single month across the country.” Laura emphasized that any housing recovery being heralded is not a recovery for individuals and communities who have lost their homes, but rather a Wall Street recovery.
Although President Obama hadn’t given his speech at the time of Laura’s interview, the President’s speech only reaffirmed her assessment that neither the 10 million people whose lives have been turned upside down by foreclosure, nor the underlying structural deficiencies that allowed this crisis to occur are at the forefront of policy thinking. President Obama claims he wants to turn “the page on the bubble-and-bust mentality that created this mess” but proposed no solutions that would enable this. Additionally, suggesting that we ought to “build a housing system that’s durable and fair and rewards responsibility for generations to come”, must, at best, sound hollow to the millions and millions of Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads and being attacked as “irresponsible” for trying to meet their fundamental needs. In stark contrast, not one banker has faced commensurate consequences for their “irresponsibility”, and the very banks foreclosing on our homes have had billions of dollars in government assistance – namely, public money – lavished upon them.
Laura’s book on the devastating effects of and community resistance to the foreclosure crisis – A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home – explores broad systemic issues at the roots of the foreclosure crisis, capturing a glimpse of a much larger human rights crisis involving housing. Laura weaves in powerful personal stories of individuals and communities organizing in self-defense against evictions and foreclosure, and documents the debilitating impacts on families and neighborhoods alike. Laura’s snapshot of the foreclosure crisis, and the people impacted by it, challenges the distorted image of the “irresponsible homeowner” that appeared in the President’s speech yesterday, but proves so elusive in life, (much like Reagan’s “welfare queen”). One such story is that of Martha Biggs.
Amidst a block full of vacant, boarded-up, foreclosed homes on Chicago’s South Side, where many blocks sit in a similar state, ravaged by foreclosure, neighbors welcomed Martha on the day she “liberated” one of the people-less homes, moving in with her four children in 2011. On the day she moved in, Martha told the assembled crowd:
“I was evicted. Homeless. On the street. Nowhere to go. Got a job. Worked hard to support my kids. Was homeless again because the building I moved into was in foreclosure. So therefore me and my family had to take another journey to be homeless again. To sleep in our cars. To go to different units, different family members’ houses. To run around. No place to go. We came up with a conclusion not to give up. Always fight. Never sit down. Keep it moving. Keep it working. This is what happens when you never sit down.”
Martha is also a former resident of the Cabrini Green public housing development (before it was torn down as part of a federally-funded “redevelopment” effort that eliminated the permanently affordable units). Martha’s story brings to life many dimensions of the housing crisis that millions of other people are still experiencing around the country. While Laura explores the deep structural racism within the U.S. housing system, from historical practices such as redlining to the more recent practice of predatory lending policies, she says, “I didn’t write the book and focus on black America because that community has been the most devastated. I focused on black America because that community has been the most organized in resistance and the most visionary in some of the concrete proposals for how we could restructure ownership and control of land and housing for the future so that this crisis wouldn’t happen again.”
NESRI is delighted to support the release of Laura’s important book and an incredible new collaborative audio mixtape called Home, produced by our friends at Housing is a Human Right. Home features original verses and tracks from a global cast of artists, woven together with first-person testimonies of people fighting for their right to a home, from the United States to South Africa. Michael Premo, from Housing is a Human Right, described the project: “The global uprisings that have erupted in the last few years signal a growing global consensus that a change must come. And we are constantly looking for creative ways to share stories that reflect this new reality … There is no better way than through the universal language of music to express the problems we face. Wherever we go, we hear the same story again and again. Insecurity. Uncertainty. But people are getting organized.”
If you are in New York City, please join NESRI, Housing is a Human Right, Laura, Zucotti Park Press and many other organizations on August 15th. Come celebrate the ongoing fight by communities in the struggle to win the right to housing for all people, and add your voice to the resistance. As Martha’s neighbors and community activists put it when chanting outside her new home on move-in day: “Fight! Fight! Fight! ‘Cause housing is a human right!”
Details of the event can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/events/164016413785441/ and here: https://dignityandrights.org/events/2013/housing-rights-book-and-mixtape-launch-at-the-powerhouse-arena.
Home is available to download free starting August 15th here: http://www.housingisahumanright.org/
A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home is available from August 13th at various independent bookstores, including Bluestockings in New York City and here: http://www.amazon.com/Dream-Foreclosed-America-Occupied-Pamphlet/dp/1884519210.
The Democracy Now! segment, featuring Laura Gottesdiener, is here: http://www.democracynow.org/2013/8/6/a_dream_foreclosed_as_obama_touts.